Gobbling up Austria #2

Vienna was always a place that sounded classy. A place that sounded elegant; suited and booted. A city of waltzes and coffee shops, yet also a city of sausage and schnitzel. But it was also one of those cities that lacked a firm trademark image or look. For most people when you say London, Paris, Moscow, New York they already know it. You say Melbourne, Tokyo, Madrid and people know the names but not the visuals. That was Vienna to me.

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Gobbling up Austria #1

Austria… What did that word conjure up? A small topography-laden blip of a once great empire? A poor man’s Bavaria? A county of bonkers hikers attacking the Alps in shorts and sturdy boots filled with fat socks? In truth Austria was one of those places I definitely knew without knowing.

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Banqueting around Bavaria!

Munich’s reputation and fame, or infamy, preceded it. This was a city, a big one, whose image was one of drunken debauchery. The capital of Bavaria: a land of huge glasses of beer, busty blonde women in dirndls handing out baked pretzels and plates and platters loaded up with sausages and slabs of indiscriminate pork meat with a side helping of sauerkraut and spicy German mustard. Of course, this was a stereotype, though, like the Cotswolds in the UK or Andalucía in Spain; one where it existed for real. 

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Caves and Wine

The gastronomic throngs and beatings of the Spanish Christmas were long gone, but my body had yet to shuffle off its mortal coil of fat. It was yearning to be lighter, breathe more easily when exercising and give my liver a few days off. However, my addiction to restrained hedonism and well-thought out scholarly gluttony meant never saying ‘no’ to more eating, more drinking, and more travelling. So, along with fellow face-stuffers Joy and Debbie, a car was hired and we headed deep into the southeastern lands of La Mancha; to the province of Albacete.

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Food and wine in Middle Germany.

Der Hunger kommt beim Essen - Appetite emerges while eating [German proverb]

The idea was a simple few-day holiday in Frankfurt to visit friends. But, as ever, it was really an excuse to ply my body with an objectively unhealthy amount of food. This was Christmas; the frilly squares in all the towns across the land had been bejewelled with twinkling lights and countless wooden huts that steamed with food cooking in the cold. This was Christmas; and there was a lot of food to be had.

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Escape to Extremadura

The Oxford English Dictionary describes the word ‘escape’ in thee ways:

  1. Break free from confinement or control.
  2. Fail to be noticed or remembered by (someone)
  3. Interrupt by means of an escape key. (Computer)

Within the first section there are, as per usual with dictionaries, various sub-definitions. But in general it was point one that interested me. I needed to escape. I needed an escape. I needed to get away from the city, from work, from the drudgery of indecision, the lingering cloying heat of the summer that had dripped over into autumn, from the social pressures imbued on the self and invoked when all around are getting married and having babies. I needed to escape. 

Elena and Carlos.

Elena and Carlos.

The nonexistent readers of my first book “The Sun Struck Upwards” may cast their minds back to the chapter where I travelled around Extremadura with the help of my friends Elena and Carlos. They are natives of that hot, conquistador-spewing land and are always happy to return and show me its wonders. 

‘Luke, how do you fancy a weekend out to La Vera.’

I almost dropped my hideously expensive phone in anticipation. I signed of with a capitalised yes and cleared my diary. 

Unflattering back in 2010

Unflattering back in 2010

La Vera is a green a mountainous enclave at the top of the Cáceres province where it borders with Castilla y León. It lies within reach, a mere two and a half hours west of Madrid and covers a pancreas-shaped wedge of 888km2 in the foothills of the Sierra de Gredos. I had been there once before, way back in 2010, where I hunted for pimentón and glacial canyon streams called gargantas in villages with names like Guijo, Garganta la Olla, Cuacos de Yuste and Jarandilla de la Vera. I had picnicked with Elena’s family down by the water; we ate gooey homemade tortilla de patata and ate fresh salads made from tomatoes local to her village of Miajadas, whilst kids and teenagers jumped from the rocks into natural pools with water so clear you could see the bottom. 

The Puente Romano at Madrigal

The Puente Romano at Madrigal

I needed this more than ever. Elena and Carlos too needed a break. After a brisk drive through ever growing vistas and topography, we arrived at our campsite in the nowhere town of Madrigal de la Vera; la Puerta de la Vera. It was an isolated little eden of tents and bungalows - we opted for a touch of luxury with the bungalow - next to the garganta de alardos. Also next door were a couple of natural pools, called charcos, and an obscenely beautiful and photogenic 16m high roman bridge that bowed up and reflected primly in the limpid waters below. 

La Vera

La Vera

The Spanish countryside around the central plains and sierras is a land that makes the glutton yearn for meat. Out there the last thing that crosses your mind is lightly fried fish or heavy meat stews. The brasa is king: the grill. Lunch was had in the village. Chuleta (steak), churrasco, and a cut called abanico (exterior rib meat from the Iberian pig), all done on the grill and served with potatoes, salad, and endearingly bad local wine that tasted of pale blackcurrant juice. 

Madrigal de la Vera

Madrigal de la Vera

After a brief siesta we went exploring. Madrigal, though welcoming and covered in sunshine like all Spanish villages, was not much in the beauty department. A somewhat tumbledown and ramshackle affair with a few crumbly old houses with traditional wooden balconies and the classic drainage gutters carved into the streets; for La Vera, despite the length and dryness of the summer, is a place of water. Indeed, as we passed the village church, it could be heard gushing about through channels and waterways between the buildings. 

The naked Cascada del Diablo

The naked Cascada del Diablo

The light was start to show signs of wanting to slip away and allow dusk to set in. We had been told of a waterfall, one of the 10 most beautiful in the country, not too far away. We piled into the car and set off with the Gredos mountains to our right, starting to have its green stung gold by the setting sun. The sad truth was that the brutality of the summer had left the 20m high Cascada del Diablo, Devil Falls, somewhat dry. It was barely a trickle when we arrived. ‘Best enjoyed in Spring, after the winter snow melts.’ What was left however, though less overtly impressive, was nonetheless beguiling. A sequence of levels and smoothened out platforms pockmarked with eroded away pools that we could clamber down and fool about on. A naked waterfall. The pools that were left were dark and ominous and the rocks nearest were stained white or red by the minerals. It veered on the side of surreal.

Villanueva de la Vera

Villanueva de la Vera

We didn’t linger long and the decision was made to milk the last minutes of the daylight by strolling around neighbouring cutesy village Villanueva de la Vera. One the more postcard-worthy settlements of the valley, Villanueva had a tight and old-feeling web of cobble streets lined with white houses that all sported those indicative and quite charming gravity-defying wooden balconies. Here too abounded porticoes, arches and support columns hiding cloisters that ran around the squares and lanes. 

Village life

Village life

We supped on beers in the diminutive main square, next to the bell-tower of the town hall and surrounded by the ubiquitous old men with sticks and groups of locals. The population of the town is only a couple of thousand. 

Pero hay vida aquí, eh!’ Cooed Elena. 

We were constantly surprised by how much life and ebullience sung out from this places. But then it was a Saturday, I reminded her.  

Darkness finally fell and the hills had become looming silhouettes. Back at the campsite we ate fairly terrible garlic chicken, picadillo (a fried mix of the insides of chorizo and herbs) and migas (bread crumbs fried in oil, garlic and chorizo) with an egg on top. 

Then reading and music on the porch, and bed. 

 

La Vera again. Beautiful. 

La Vera again. Beautiful. 

It was already hot at 11 o’clock the following morning, but we wanted to hike a little. We headed down to the Roman bridge again, crossed it, and struck northwards towards the snarling, grey granite spike of the Almanzor peak. I would have to wait until a hardier group joined me before I tackled that, but we found a pleasant 9km to and fro track that Elena was happy with. 

Farms. 

Farms. 

As we left the world behind we passed by farm and after farm along an ever-rising path. The air was fragrant, tangibly warm and busy with butterflies. The rocky path was alive with bouncy crickets and skittish lizards and here and there we spied the silken plasticky remains of a shed snake skin. 

Collected Eucalyptus 

Collected Eucalyptus 

Up again, still onward at pace, through an aromatic eucalyptus forest. The bases had had small sections of bark sliced and cut clean off; like some native had taken a bowie knife to a scalp. Red tree flesh had been exposed under the bark and was macabrely leaking sap slowly down into plastic cups. Resin collection. Then out again, past farms and farms. Tobacco plantations with their crispy crisping leaves; then oak trees shedding their still green acorns; and fig trees, so many fig trees, their little fruits collected and laid out on trays in little drying huts. Altitude then got the best of the farmers as we arrived at our lonely destination: Castro de Raso.

More than a kilometre in the air, stuck on a little mountain ridge is a small Vettones settlement. The ruins of a pre-Roman Celtic people from the centuries before Christ. I expected a few rocks and a reconstructed house. Instead the remains were quite expansive and the location doubly so. These ancient places always made my mind melt a little. Just the thought, the truth and fact, that people were once in these simple stone houses, living here millennia ago, made my brain hurt. People had families here, ate dinner and washed over there, in this room made jewellery and carved stone artefacts, in that one they held meetings. It was amazing. 

Old settlement high up in the nowhere

Old settlement high up in the nowhere

Que fuerte, I’m touching a rock wall that has been here for two thousand years.’

They thought so too.

We congratulated ourselves with a brief swim in a pool back at base camp and giggled and little fishes nibbled our feet clean. 

Lunch with a view

Lunch with a view

Lunch was had in the hamlet of Raso, stranded far up the mountain side. The Mirador de Gredos: populated by rich people, cyclists, families and wasps. So many benign but annoying wasps. Again we took to the brasas and ordered overblown steaks and slow-roasted red pepper and tuna salads.  Bloated and full we had one final stop to make. One that would make my eyes leak out of their sockets for its beauty. 

Near the middle of nowhere place of Ramacastañas is a cave, called a gruta instead of cueva, that might be the country’s best kept secret. It should have worldwide fame, or least have been featured on some BBC or Natural Geographic documentary. The Grutas del Águila: The Caves of the Eagle. 

We descended into the caves via some steps and, just to boil it down into one clear idea, spent the following forty minutes or so, gawping, making dumb noises, taking photos and generally having to remember to close our mouths. To describe the different stages of the cave would be impossible. It was a kilometre-long hangar from whose roof dripped glacially slow and ever-growing ghostly stalactites of such variation (and then the stalagmites too) as to render adjectives meaningless. Some were thick as trees and were stained orange and peach by oxidation and bacteria; others were delicate silk threads. Some were perfect icicle-like daggers that covered the roof like teeth whilst some were gently folded over each other like china-white carpet or rose petals. 

Here and there still and eery little puddles and pools reflected the spotlit magnificence. I thanked the adolescent adventurers who had stumbled upon this fairytale by accident back on the 24th December 1963. What a Christmas present that was. If it weren’t for a few somewhat irritating tourists, that 17 degrees centigrade wonderland would have been one of those truly perfect places. That being said I have never seen anything like it. Photos do not do it justice, but my goodness it was a mind-melder. 

To end: a scenic route along the Gredos eastwards as they dipped into the Guadarrama on the approach to Madrid. Traffic, lights of the city, a waning sun. The weekend was over and my escape had come to end. But while it lasted it was as varied and glorious as it was brief.

East From Madrid #3: Castles from the Sea

The sea would remain our companion for the morning. The big aquamarine slab of glitter that was Valencia’s languid coast. The heat, palpable and clingy, met with the breeze on the hill at the first stop of interest through Valencia’s ugly northern outskirts. The monastery of El Puig - one of the region’s great houses - sat, bursting out of the titular village around it. A rosy pink crenellated slab of old stones surrounded by boxy hodgepodge houses that didn’t hint at luxury. Then rice fields. Then the line of holidays high rises and then the sea. 

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East From Madrid #2: Pious Rice Fields

Summer had finally had finally rid itself of the long trousers and jackets and had hauled itself over the Valencian Community; Spain’s eighth largest region. The air had taken on that spongy tangibility only really present in celestially warmed coastal zones; and the decision was taken to finally drive roofless. Exuberance at its finest.

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Gluttons through northwest Castilla

Castilla y Leon: the sprawling Kansas carpet rolled out over Iberia. Great plains turned vibrant green by the spring rains. Rapeseed and emerald wheats spreading out with sensual shadows for as far as any eye can see. A land of crusty castles and towering spires where squabbling kings and queens created a world power and agreed to rid themselves of Moors and Jews. A shimmering land of golden cities that would make any Roman emperor proud.

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Looking for Lamb in Segovia.

‘I’m not scared of the vultures myself. I’m scared they might take one of the dogs.’

Elliot, an ageing Belgian Griffon, stopped in the sun and panted dramatically. 

‘How you love the theatre,’ sighed Roque as he scooped up the little canine. Elliot’s concubine, Fanny, ran around as happy and dumb as the day she was born. We were walking off our lunch at the Hoces del Río Duratón natural park. Out 65km north from Segovia - one of Spain’s most romantic towns - a great snaking gorge had been carved out of the earth by the same forces that would, for America, scrape out the Grand Canyon. An emerald green river looped around a scrubby canyon where huge vultures wheeled around thermals above little chapels.

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